Virus czar: Lockdown will probably be extended beyond two weeks

Health minister says vaccines to be made available to all age groups in 1-2 weeks, says appointments for elderly and at-risk groups will be moved up

Israelis shop at the market in Ramle. The market has been partially closed down due to restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. December 23, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Israelis shop at the market in Ramle. The market has been partially closed down due to restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. December 23, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Thursday said Israel’s third nationwide lockdown would likely be extended beyond the proposed two weeks to further drive down COVID-19 infections, but predicted the closure would be the last before the pandemic is successfully brought under control by the vaccination drive.

The government early Thursday announced a national lockdown to take effect Sunday in order to curb a resurgence of COVID-19. The new lockdown will begin at 5 p.m. and last for at least two weeks. The restrictions will be extended for an additional two weeks if morbidity rates do not decrease significantly. The moves were approved by the cabinet overnight.

“Two weeks is too short. I estimate we will need to extend the lockdown,” said Ash in an interview with Army Radio.

“I truly believe this will be our last lockdown,” he said, adding that the effects of the vaccination campaign will begin to be felt when the restrictions are eased.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Herzliya, December 20, 2020 (Flash90)

The lockdown rules will bar Israelis from entering another person’s home, except for immediate family members; restrict movement to 1 kilometer from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce, leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50 percent capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Restaurants will be allowed to do delivery, but takeout orders will be banned. Gatherings will be restricted to 20 people outdoors and 10 indoors, and individual sports activities, such as jogging, will be allowed.

The terms are similar to the last lockdown, in September.

In contrast to previous lockdowns, however, the education system will continue to function, with some restrictions. Kindergarten, grades 1-4, and grades 11-12 will hold classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Parents will be able to drop their children off at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 2 p.m. Special education programs will continue as usual.

A medical staff member receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, on December 20, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

The lockdown drew anger from businesses and from parents who decried the partial closure of the school system.

The lockdown announcement came as the number of new infections surged to over 3,000 cases per day for the last several days, and as fears grow of a new, more transmissible variant of the virus.

Israel’s two previous lockdowns, in April and September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back.

The lockdown also comes days after Israel began its vaccination drive, administering shots to medical staff from Sunday and Israelis over 60 years old from Monday. As of Wednesday night, 140,000 Israelis have received the first dose. Hospitals are set to join the effort next week, ramping up the campaign, with the prime minister and health officials saying Israel aspired to become the first country in the world to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Thursday said the vaccines will soon be made available to the people of all ages.

“In under a month, in a week or two, the vaccines will be opened to the young population as well,” he told Army Radio.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

The health minister also addressed complaints of a lack of available appointments in the coming weeks for the vaccine. “The appointments for the at-risk populations that were set up for a month, a month and a half away, will be moved up. There will be no such waiting period,” Edelstein said.

The new lockdown is aimed, in part, at ensuring that a British strain of the coronavirus, which is believed to be more contagious, does not spread in Israel. On Wednesday, Edelstein said the new variant has been found in four cases in the country.

Three of the cases were people who had recently returned from the UK and were staying in state-run hotels. However, the fourth person had not been abroad and had been infected by an apparently unidentified individual inside Israel, signaling the new strain could already be spreading in the country. It was not yet clear whether that person had come into contact with someone who had returned from the UK.

A new rule went into effect Wednesday night ordering all Israelis arriving from abroad to quarantine at state-operated and specifically designated hotels. Previously, Israelis requiring quarantine after returning from countries with high infection rates could self-isolate in their own homes.

Israel has seen 385,000 total virus cases since the start of the pandemic. As of Wednesday night, there were nearly 30,000 active cases, with some 500 people in serious condition. The death toll stood at 3,150.

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